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The Girl Without Feminism

January 9, 2012

In China the winter lull comes later and longer, and I’m biding my two weeks of winter break (which will be followed by a week of teaching and then two more weeks off for the Spring Festival–these frequent vacations get lost in the collective hysteria over Chinese educational hegemony) watching the Swedish movies of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl trilogy.

I have neither read the books nor seen the first U.S. movie (which opened on December 21) but they have been such a phenomenon that I couldn’t help but know something going in. I knew, for example, that a literal rendition of the Swedish title of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is Men Who Hate Women. I knew also that the male protagonist, Mikael Blomkvist, is based on Larsson down to his journalism career, proclivity for cigarettes and booze, and overt feminism. And I knew that the female protagonist is a computer hacker named Lisbeth Salander and supposed to be six kinds of badass cool.

In the Swedish movies, Salander is played by Noomi Rapace, and both the performance and the character are as advertised, compelling in the extreme. In the U.S. version, Salander is played by Rooney Mara, and here she is in a recent Newsweek interview, responding to the suggestion that Dragon Tattoo is a feminist book:

I think maybe the feminists see it that way. I don’t know what Larsson’s intentions were. But I don’t think Salander does anything in the name of any group or cause or belief. She is certainly not a feminist.

This response put me in mind of a recent conversation with a young (23) Chinese woman, who has become a good friend. We work together, and on our first tentative social outing we made our way to a Western-style bar (“Western-style” is redundant–drinking culture here is vastly different and the Chinese people I’ve met don’t have our concept of “going to the bar” or “meeting for drinks”) where I have become familiar.

As two and then three cocktails settled into her (itself an achievement–more than one Chinese woman has told me that she has never drunk alcohol because doing so would keep her from getting married, to which your guess is as good as mine) she grew chatty, and began telling me about her ex-boyfriend, with whom she had been in love. It ended badly, she said, because in the end he was just another typical Chinese man. He wanted to control her and arrange her life to support him. He didn’t really care about her, she was just another accessory. When his family arranged an excellent job for her, that was the last straw. It would have been a de facto engagement and the final surrender of her freedom.

All this came out of her in a rush, the course of which impressed me: for its keen insight into sexual politics; for the strength it took to stand up for herself; and maybe most of all for the eloquence of her screed in a second language. It was by far the most intimate exchange I’ve had with a Chinese person, and it made me like her immensely.

“I didn’t realize you were such a feminist,” I told her.

I intended this as both a sympathetic recognition and a compliment–I am a feminist–but that’s not how she took it. Instead she grew angry, and denied the title with all the vehemence she could muster. She didn’t hate men, she explained, she liked them very much, and so she could never be a feminist. We moved on then to other topics. It is hardly the first time I’ve had a conversation with a woman who is clearly a feminist but refuses identification.

SPOILER ALERT FOR THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH

And this is also what Mara is doing. If the book has even a tangential relationship to the movie there is zero doubt that its author is a feminist. Salander is not only more interesting than Blomkvist, she’s far more intelligent and resourceful. She’s the one who solves the mysteries that propel the plot, and she’s the one who rescues Blomkvist from the villain seconds before his death. She dictates the terms of their sexual relationship. And she (in)famously exacts a vicious revenge on her rapist that had me cheering. Blomkvist, meanwhile, asks her to drive when they rent a car and is relegated to favoring her with soft loving looks meant to convey how much he simultaneously loves and fails to understand her, as though he were Maggie Gyllenhall (“Mad at Me” is what I have in mind). And the central theme of the narrative is the omnipresent destructive potential of specifically male evil. No intelligent observer could say in good faith that Larsson and his stories are not feminist in intent.

And yet it cannot surprise that Mara denies it, as my Chinese friend denied her own feminism. To those on the inside this is baffling; as the saying goes, feminism is the radical notion that women are people, and it feels as natural to us as gravity or opposing animal torture. It then becomes so hard to argue with that it is difficult to argue for, especially when resistance to the term–not just the idea but the term–is so entrenched.

Opposition to the cause has, per usual, focused and re-focused attention on language–“feminazi”– to, per usual, devastating success. They have done it so well that it’s no longer safe for feminists to see, let alone proclaim, themselves as such, even in safe places like the private corner of a bar and for safe people like movie stars. The ground of the fight has shifted over thirty years and we no longer battle in the ring. Before we can do so we must first convince the crowd that the ring exists, and is a good place to hold a fight. And so the long road gets longer and longer.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Peter permalink
    January 10, 2012 3:30 pm

    I was under the assumption that drinking with the ladies in China was verboten. Glad to hear you’re tearing down those walls brotherman.

    Don’t get me wrong, I really appreciate the analysis of our disingenuous semantic argument style. But more importantly, I love that you’re helping the locals get tanked. You make me proud.

    /super serious

  2. January 18, 2012 3:42 pm

    Although I’m certainly no expert I have read all three of the book trilogy and watched both the American and Swedish version of TGWTDT. I have to say that how my opinions shake out is not at all as would have guessed going into it.

    First, I liked the American film version better than the Swedish. This is unusual because I generally find American film versions to be overly saturated with gratuitous violence and/or random shit that for some reason must always blow up. I also liked Daniel Craig better than his Swedish counterpart. I like Craig, in general, but I thought this was a time where I actually thought having a more attractive actor actually followed the book a little closer. Nobody would have fucked that Swedish dude and he certainly wouldn’t have had a hot girlfriend. I suppose we could split hairs talking about whether his physical appearance was relevant to Lisabeth since she looked to him as a father figure and he represented stability and security. Really, I’m not that obtuse to miss that I’m just saying the guy was beaten by an ugly stick.

    Second, I liked Mara better as Lisabeth. The Swedish actress came off as a wannabe goth/punk girl. Mara played it more like she was downright crazy which, again, I think stays with the book.

    I do think the Swedish version, however, did do a little better job of explaining what the hell was going on. The books are epically long and they’re very, very dense with information. If I hadn’t have read the books I think I might have been a little lost in the beginning.

    One thing about the American film- If you think the sexual assault scene in the Swedish version is hard to watch- tune in to David Fincher’s version. Holy Shit. It’s at least 3x longer than in the Swedish version and the rape scene is very long and graphic. I haven’t read the book for some time, but I do remember it being very graphic as well.

    As far as the books- I liked the 1st book. I like the 2nd book pretty well. By the 3rd book I was pretty over it and wished I could kill LIsabeth myself. By the 3rd book she’d become a completely unsympathetic character. And when I said before the books are dense I also meant that they’re really fucking long. This guy goes completely over the top in details. He won’t just introduce a character. He will give you a detailed 3 generation family history with mind-numbing details which don’t advance the plot or seem relevant in any way. Sometimes it just goes on and on. If I hadn’t committed a good chunk of my life reading the first 2 I might not have finished the 3rd at all.

    And, yes, I’m probably completely trivializing your above points by making this a Roger Ebert film review- but Lisabeth is an excellent example of a modern day feminist and after reading Mara’s comments I am thoroughly irked at her for missing the point entirely. Clearly, the author understood the concept. I suppose Mara thinks we should be out burning our bras at a rally or carrying a sign that references the autonomy of our vaginas.

    I’m going to shut up now.

  3. January 18, 2012 6:14 pm

    errrr..Lisbeth..I meant Lisbeth

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